Shariah is not a Law by Esther Nelson

I will never forget the day Nasr Abu Zaid (1943-2010), an Islamic Studies scholar and teacher extraordinaire, told me, “Shariah is not a law.”  In spite of his assertion, many people—both Muslims and non-Muslims—are convinced that Shariah is synonymous with archaic legal rulings that are at odds with democracy and modernity.


What is Shariah, then, if not a law?  When we see or hear the word Shariah, the word “Law” almost always follows.  Shariah literally means a path—a well-trodden path such as animals use on their way to a watering hole.  Shariah, then, can be understood as something that when embraced has potential to give life and sustenance.


Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel circa 600 C.E.  That revelation—Muslims believe it to be God’s actual speech—took place over a period of approximately twenty-one years. The Qur’an contains Shariah (path) in the form of information, narrative, and poetry.  Since Shariah is essentially a path that leads to life, the critical question centers on how Shariah can be appropriated, leading us to the water that sustains.

According to Noah Feldman, Shariah is more like “God’s blueprint for human life.” (  After the Prophet’s death, revelation ceased.  The nascent Muslim community then faced an existential question.  How do we go forward with our lives? With no new prophecy to give guidance in matters that arise in day-to-day living, how do we continue along the right path as a believing community?


Muslims developed concrete expressions of Shariah by interpreting sources—Qur’an and Sunna (sayings and doings of the Prophet). Where the Qur’an and Sunna failed to address issues with no precedent, analogy (involving human reason) and consensus (among legal scholars or jurists) were put into use by those who came to be known as Sunni Muslims. The concrete expression of Shariah is technically called fiqh—the body of Islamic law.  All reading is interpretation. How we understand and apply what we read varies, depending on what we, readers, bring to a text. Because human beings create fiqh through human interpretation, most scholars agree that fiqh is not divine.


Nasr Abu Zaid explained it to me like this: Muslims believe the Qur’an to be God’s speech—divine. As soon as that speech was revealed to Muhammad, though, the human element was interjected.  “We are not divine.  Because we are human, we cannot fully grasp divinity.”  So, as soon as the Prophet uttered in human speech what was revealed to him, the Qur’an became human. The humanity of Qur’an is in ADDITION to its divine essence.  (Most Christians today think of Jesus in the same way—fully human AND fully divine.)  When jurists issue legal rulings (fiqh), those rulings are really a best guess approximation to what humans believe God has in mind.  There are a variety of ways to understand and interpret Qur’an and Sunna, hence, the various schools of theology within Islam.


In the U.S. (and beyond), we at times see Muslims carrying signs that read, “Islam is the answer.”  Muslims believe that. (Christians also carry signs that read, “Jesus is the answer.” Christians believe that.)  What does that belief look like when manifested in people’s lives in the here and now?  It varies, depending on the particularities of a people in a specific time and place.  Most often, though, theologians carefully consider the faith community’s authoritative sources and interpret those sources in a way they believe will bring life and peace to the community. (Individuals are capable of doing this as well.)  It’s problematic, though, when a particular interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna becomes law (human) and equated with Shariah (divine). Laws, because they are human, are not eternal.  They can (and have) changed throughout Islamic history.


Most Muslims are horrified with the primitive rulings (often taken from Roman law) that call for stoning people and cutting off body parts for infractions of what so often is called Shariah.  Most Christians are horrified by their own tradition’s draconian laws that burned women (and some men) alive for practicing “witchcraft”—something that usually meant going outside boundaries established by those in power.  Both Muslims and Christians believe they were/are doing God’s will on earth.  Lest we think that Christians’ belief carrying out “God’s will” in ghoulish ways is something that has been relegated to the past, let me assure you, it is not.


During my adult church-going days in a fairly mainstream Protestant denomination, there was great support for Christian Reconstructionism, a movement founded by Rousas Rushdoony. ( His teachings have had considerable influence with the Christian Right in the United States. Reconstructionism, among other things, advocates restoring harsh punishment (death) to homosexuals, recalcitrant children, adulterers, and blasphemers. I even heard people from the congregation I attended advocate stoning as a way to carry out “just” punishment.


Most Christians do not think Christian Reconstructionism is a valid lens to peer through while interpreting Scripture. In that same vein, most Muslims do not believe what is often referred to as Shariah Law (old Roman laws that advocate stoning and cutting off hands) to be a valid way of expressing the meaning and intent of the Qur’an. Both Christians and Muslims (at their best) want to create just societies.


When we hear the phrase, “The Qur’an is our Constitution” from people in Muslim-majority countries, they are reflecting their desire for legislation informed by Qur’an and Sunna. No different to my way of thinking from Christian people intent on (and often working towards) having their favorite interpretation of Scripture become the “law of the land.”


Shariah is a blueprint for living.  Fiqh gives shape to the blueprint in the form of law.  Once a law takes concrete form, it has outlived its usefulness, according to Nasr. I agree.  Since life is in constant flux, it’s necessary to continuously tap into the spirit of Shariah, allowing the well-trodden path to inform and guide us.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

15 thoughts on “Shariah is not a Law by Esther Nelson”

  1. Dear mam, thanks for the masterpiece. In current world, the distinction between Shariah and Fiqh has been blurred which is creating more and more problem. I am concerned about one thing and would like to request you to think. Although, Shariah is not law, just blue print; but Muslims often consider it as Islamic laws which can not be edited or revised. It is true that, Shariah is more like theory and Fiqh is its application. My concern is, if people considers Shariah as divine or unchangeable then it becomes kind of law. In that case, how to make distinction between Shariah and Fiqh? Isn’t it overlapping in reality/practice?


    1. Thank you for your response, Shimul Siddiquee. I suppose there are a variety of ways to think about the nature of the divine. Is the divine nature immutable–never changing? How can we know? According to Nasr, we (humans) cannot apprehend the divine in its fullness, but we do have a glimpse of it through our humanity. Since shariah is a blueprint or “theory,” what that looks like in “real life” will vary from region to region and person to person. And it changes over time. What was once considered to be “right” and “true,” based on Qur’an and Sunna, can (and does) evolve as human beings continue to wrestle with their sacred texts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your reply mam. Your notion about the nature of the divine is quite interesting. Except for Hinduism, all the giant religions have the similar kind of legacy of mixing up between Shariah and Fiqh (Law) while practicing. The problem is, to talk about this issue is sometimes problematic due to the domination of the fundamentalist. I think this is kind of fanaticism, by which the world is suffering now. I am concerned about the sensitization process of this long living trend of thinking. In my country, I feel this dilemma every moment. It is not easy to say a single word, even for the purpose of fair discussion. Based on some recent incidents, people are becoming Jihadist just because of a different explanation of Shariah. Things are so rigid and becoming more gradually. I think explanation and Fiqh provided by people like Nasr Abu Zaid can bring some solution in this regard.


  2. Thank you for this thoughtful, illuminating post. I love the image of Sharia or any religious teaching as a path that leads to the well, the source of life. If we could remember that finding our way to the source is the purpose of religion we might be kinder and more helpful to each other. And those of us who like to go off the beaten path in search of remote springs might not be seen as so threatening and aberrant.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As usual, this is an informative, excellent essay. Your words: “Lest we think that Christians’ belief (or Muslim or any other religious sect) carrying out “God’s will” in ghoulish ways is something that has been relegated to the past, let me assure you, it is not” need front page coverage these days. How else besides modeling decent behavior do we reach through the veil of hatred and mis – information?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brava! A few years ago, I edited a huge book (never published) about Islam. During the editing process, I learned much of what you write here, plus a lot of history. I still don’t understand how or why so many Muslims and Christians wandered so far off the divine (and human) path of their god and inflicted so much harm on other people. Alas. They’re still doing it.


      1. I agree that we choose which aspects of texts or traditions to affirm and which to ignore or dismiss, at the same time, not all texts and traditions are exactly the same, and I would say that domination and violence are found in patriarchal texts, not only read into them. Yes, we can choose how to respond to those violent or domination elements, but they are not only there but perhaps central in many patriarchal texts and traditions. Siggghhh

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Thanks for this comprehensive piece of writing. Your explanation of distinction between Shariah and Fiqh has made me interested to think further. I am concerned about one thing. Although, Shariah is not some kind of law like Fiqh; but in practice the muslims in general think Shariah as Law. Because, they believe everything derived from Holy Quran is divine. In that case, practically there is no difference is seen between Shariah and Fiqh. Both indicates some must follow laws and regulations. I can very well understand that, theoretically there are lots of difference between this two. But, how to make distinction while practicing. Furthermore, my understanding is; practical aspects make things complicated which can not be ignored. Considering this reality, Newt Gingrich mentioned about testing every muslims and to deport the ones who “believe in Shariah.


    1. Newt Gingrich doesn’t understand the difference between Shariah and fiqh. Neither do many other people as you note. Also, I think it is up to us (human beings) to live out our lives without having to make and follow hard-and-fast rules and regulations. This is difficult because many people are not comfortable with open-ended questions. Nasr often said that the Qur’an (and subsequently shariah) has a “bent” towards justice. As we (humans) work with the text understanding its principles and thrust, we move in the direction of justice. Many people need something to be “fixed.” Nasr believed mature people do not need that. And also, let’s not forget that having fixed rules about anything gives those in power more leverage. People are easier to control that way.

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply to Elizabeth Cunningham Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: